Have you ever found yourself trying to pathologize a virtue?
I feel that I cannot be alone in this. Perhaps we can point a finger to my lengthy education and background in psychology for being the culprit in this line of thought. Another likely candidate could be deeply ingrained feelings of unworthiness. A third possibility lies in my in-depth excavation of my thoughts and feelings in the hopes of moving myself forward and truly becoming more mindful and authentic. Regardless of the reason, I recently found myself trying to delve into my tendency toward gift-giving.
That may raise an eyebrow. How can one pathologize kindness and generosity?
Over the course of my life, I have been the kind of person who will go out of my way to shower someone with gifts and/or attention. And I’ve always wondered if I’m not just trying to buy love and affection or if I feel that perhaps I won’t get those things if I don’t do more, be more. For example, I recently bought a cup of coffee for a new, admittedly attractive, friend. And then later, when overthinking reared its ugly head, I thought, Did I just try to buy his affection and interest? Like—here’s coffee, now love me?
Thankfully, at this point, cue the best friend who delivered a verbal slap to jolt me out of this line of thinking and reminded me that it’s not about pathology. It’s not some kind of disorder. She pointed out that I am just kind and generous at the most basic level. That’s just who I am. She’s known me many, many years—over half of my life now. And her assessment calmed me, even though I had doubts.
But I kept thinking, as I often do, and I realized that this isn’t about whether or not my tendency toward being effusive with attention (with time or gifts) is trying to compensate for a lack I feel within myself. Instead, I realized that it’s so much more than that. Kindness and generosity are virtues, and I think the true reason that I’ve lived a life that focuses on other people is because I have so much love in my heart to give, and I don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to give enough to satisfy that level of love. Or maybe, more accurately, I’ve never gotten it back.
I recently wrote a blog about how we could heal the world if we channeled our unrequited love into being good to others. And now I think that all of this attention and affection that I’ve freely given away, sometimes to people who were not so kind to me, has been about that. About how I have so much to give, and I don’t have a significant other to focus that love on right now.
I was once married, and I did focus that energy and attention to my then-husband. Now, as a single person without a significant other, I find myself lavishing attention on my children, family, friends and apparently even new acquaintances. And it’s interesting that I’ve tried to pathologize that rather than seeing that I just have an overwhelming amount of love I need to give, and I have to give it to keep functioning.
And isn’t it healthy—and even an excellent coping mechanism—to find ways to love the world when we don’t have the focus of a relationship?
It seems to me that we have the choice to be bitter about not having that happy pairing, or we can still find ways to put our love out into the world.
The truth is that people won’t always appreciate it, but I find that kindness and generosity shouldn’t be motivated by others’ responses to them. I feel like we can give with happy hearts, and our intention in the gift is what matters. I also feel like we do actually get a lot of side benefits from being the kind of person to share our love with others. We get a smile when we make someone’s day just by recognizing them, being kind or showing our appreciation. We make other people happy by being thoughtful, and it’s not about buying their attention but about allowing all of that love that we have inside to get outside of us.
Maybe this isn’t a problem a lot of people have, but I know that empathic people like myself feel so much all the time. We’re overwhelmed with our love and concern for the world, and perhaps the idea of being able to channel some of that out in a positive direction could be of benefit.
There’s not something wrong with us.
This isn’t about a lack or a deficit or a failing. This isn’t about pathology or even co-dependence. This is about having the basic human need of loving another person. And we can hoard that love, keep it to ourselves in the hopes that one day we have a person we can gift it to.
But the thing about love is that giving it away doesn’t ever deplete it. Love is one of those things that just grows the more that we give it.
So we can take the focus off not having a someone, and instead see the world as being full of viable candidates to receive that love. We can take all of our affection and kindness and open our eyes. We can make random acts of kindness a part of our life philosophy, and we can show other people we care. In small ways or large ones, in whatever ways that move us.
Because in the end, we have these big, beautiful hearts, and it’s okay that we want to show people that we see them and that we care. It’s not a deficiency in us that causes us to reach out. Rather, it’s because we have a surplus of love and affection—instead of allowing that cup to run over and be wasted, we want to refill someone else’s by reaching out.
So today I’m I’m thinking about all the times that I felt lonely and caved in on myself rather than expanding outward, and I think that maybe next time I’ll reach out and not in. I’ll buy the cup of coffee or make someone a special lunch without questioning my own motives . I’ll write a thank you card or help someone out with a problem. I’ll look up and out into the world to see if I can give a little of that love away, taking comfort in the fact that what I give away won’t deplete me, and the love we give will always come back to us.
Author: Crystal Jackson
Editor: Catherine Monkman